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‘High School Musical’ cast turns drivel into dynamite

You may resent the corporate attitude that seems to be behind “High School Musical.” The script feels born not of creativity but of market research. Curiously, though, if you’re willing to forgive the spectacularly mediocre book and score, you just might have a terrific time.

The story (based on the hugely successful Disney Channel movie) is a little bit “Babes in Arms,” a tad “Footloose” and a lot “Grease.” Troy (the likable John Jeffrey Martin) is too much of a basketball jock to admit he wants the lead role in the school musical. He’s also too proud to admit how much he likes the intellectual nerd Gabriella (Arielle Jacobs).

I don’t think I’m giving away much by revealing he learns to be who he is. Not only that, but Coach Daddy (the quietly powerful Ron Bohmer) realizes that having his kid in the school play isn’t so bad, and the theater teacher (the riveting Ellen Harvey) realizes that not all jocks are jerks.

David Simpatico’s book is steeped in coming-of-age clichés (it makes “Grease” seem like Brecht) and the songs are credited to 13 composers, when one likely would have done just as miserably.

But against all odds, director Jeff Calhoun and an infectiously energetic cast turn drivel into dynamite. The exuberance feels genuine, and it’s impossible to resist actors who seem to be having such a great time.

Bobby List is a major find as the flamboyant thespian Ryan Evans. He has dancing legs miles long, an expressive singing instrument, and an unaffected, self-mocking way of punching up a comic line that manages to give life to dead material.

It’s right that Harvey plays a theater teacher. She’s dazzling enough for us to believe that all the young talent onstage could still learn something from her.

And the cast is made up of various shapes, sizes and ethnicities so that we never feel as if we’re watching slick performers pretending to be ordinary people. These union actors look “ordinary” in the most professional kind of way.

Pacing is often masterfully on-target (except in the one or three scenes in which the director takes the drama much too seriously), Lisa Stevens’ choreography is fast and playful, and technical values are consistently first-rate.

Rarely has so much been made of so little.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at DelValle@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

 

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